The Gospel: Good News for Cultural ‘Christians’?
Is the gospel good news for people who claim Christianity but who don’t actually trust and follow Jesus? Since a lot of Americans hold to this watered-down version of the gospel, we need to do a better job of articulating the real thing.
I have the numbers of our local funeral homes in my phone. So, when one of them calls me, I pretty much know what’s coming. Someone died, and one of the family (perhaps associated with our church; perhaps a community member who knows me) is requesting I help with their loved one’s funeral. I’m fairly certain the deceased is no one in our church, because I would have known about it before then, or even been present with them before or as they breathed their last. So, the funeral director wants to know if I can help. The deceased likely doesn’t have a church home, and they need a pastor. I might know who they are, but I’m not always familiar with them. Sometimes I don’t know them at all. Still, I want to help.
I’m not sure how weddings and funerals are typically done in more progressive cities or in more coastal urban centers, but deep in the heart of flyover country there is still something that makes people reach for a church or call a preacher when they need to get someone buried.
“Deep in the heart of flyover country there is still something that makes people reach for a church or call a preacher when they need to get someone buried.”
Is it just a cultural norm, a societal expectation, a standard question funeral directors ask? Or is there still an instinct even lost people have of the need for a God-representative to help put a loved one to rest? To provide a funeral. To talk at a graveside. Is it Ecclesiastes 3:11 coming to light, according to which there is eternity in the heart of every person? Is it a reflection of Romans 1:19-20, which explains that creation makes it obvious there is a God and so they are without excuse?
Or are folks just operating under the assumption that Grandpa was a good man (or God needed another angel), and they just want a preacher to put his blessing on it?
If that last line sounded a little cynical (and theologically tongue-in-cheek), I apologize. I’ve been at this a while, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with relatives of the deceased to plan the service, and the following scenario unfolds.
Some context: They’re grieving. This is not what they planned. They haven’t thought the details through. I’m trying my best to be sympathetic and pastoral, kind and gentle, but also trying to get some information so as to arrange a service that will honor the dead and point people to God. So, there are standard questions I ask the survivors about their dearly departed. One I always ask is, “Were there any Scriptures that were special to them? What Bible passages could I read that they would want?”
“‘Were there any Scriptures that were special to them?’…Well over half the time, there’s just silence.”
And well over half the time, there’s just silence. Deer-in-the-headlights. Someone might mumble something about Grandpa not really being the church-going type. I ask if he had a Bible. Maybe there’s something written or underlined. They don’t know. I ask if there was a wall-hanging or a piece of art that might have had some Scripture written on it. Nothing.
Sometimes they’ll look at each other with a face that says, “Seems like we ought to be able to come up with something.” A few times, after thinking for a while, someone will say something about a psalm, but they can’t remember which one. I have learned to volunteer, “You mean the 23rd Psalm?”
“Yes!” they say. That’s the one.
Meanwhile, I try to hide that I’m sad. I’m frustrated. They try to comfort each other, saying that their loved one is finally with Mama, or something to that effect. And in my heart, I’m trying not to be the judge—to let God be God and sort all this out. But it’s really difficult.
Of course, I want to comfort the grieving family. Still, I refuse to preach someone into heaven when there’s lots of evidence to the contrary, or when I don’t know their faith personally, or just to make family feel better. And I’m to the point where I can’t listen to Vince Gill tell his friend to go rest high on that mountain. Not one more time.
“How did we get to where so many Americans assume they’re right with God on no other basis than a fuzzy belief in a loving God?”
How did we get to where so many Americans assume they’re right with God on no other basis than a fuzzy belief in a loving God? Many of these folks believe there’s a God in heaven, but there isn’t much about their lives that reflects obedience to Him. They don’t care about the mission of the church. They have little time or inclination to read God’s Word. If they pray, their prayer lives consist mostly of wants. Yet, when it comes to the end of life, they’re pretty sure the good days outnumbered the bad, and they’re ready to climb that Stairway to Heaven.
I’ve heard these truths many times over the last year or so: The gospel you believe determines the disciple you become. The gospel you preach determines the disciple you make.
Another minister friend of mine was wondering out loud recently, “This younger generation that is increasingly having no religious affiliation—did they really leave the faith, or were they simply living out the practical implications and the logical conclusions of the gospel they were taught?”
“Did they really leave the faith, or were they simply living out the practical implications and the logical conclusions of the gospel they were taught?”
If you want to have a surprisingly frustrating conversation with a group of elders, a Sunday School class, or a youth group, hand out sheets of paper and ask them to write down the answer to one question: “What is the gospel?” Make sure to tell them they cannot take the easy route and simply write “good news.” See how many different and fuzzy answers you get.
I’ve been meeting with a group for a few weeks delving into that question, and it’s opened other questions. Once you start defining gospel the way Jesus and the apostles used it instead of the way our culture sees it, other concepts we thought we understood start coming into clearer focus.
What is salvation? What is a disciple?
What is salvation? It becomes so much more than getting a “get out of hell free” card.
What is a disciple? It becomes so much more than a church-goer.
We are tempted to shake our heads in exasperation over people’s thin understanding of faith, but maybe they are just living out the version of Christianity they were given as children. It’s time for the church to embrace a richer, fuller, broader, kingdom gospel. Let’s stop reducing the gospel to a sales pitch that gets someone saved. As we walk with Jesus daily, following him, let’s bring others along.
“Let’s stop reducing the gospel to a sales pitch that gets someone saved. As we walk with Jesus, daily following him, let’s bring others along.”
When our churches’ number one mission is to make faithful disciples of King Jesus, we’ll begin seeing truer Christians, stronger churches, and more opportunities to share our hope with a curious world. And instead of an uneasy, flimsy optimism, we’ll experience more and more funerals which give us reason for genuine celebration over lives lived for Jesus.